Letter from Israel

By Brafman, Ora | Dance Magazine, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Letter from Israel


Brafman, Ora, Dance Magazine


Editor's note: Journalist and critic Ora Brafman directed the award-winning documentary Bare Feet, a profile of Inbal founder Sara Levi-Tanai.

HAIFA, Israel--When it's time to eulogize a dance company, a string of cliches comes to mind. Even though the phrase is overused, "the end of an era" is the only way to describe the demise of Inbal Dance Theatre, Israel's seminal modern company.

The official notice of Inbal's closure by the Ministry of Culture was never issued out loud. Instead, to lull any opposition, a new entity was formed. The newborn was at first called Inbal Dance Theatre--Ethnic Center. Sounds similar, but the intent and essence is vastly different.

Inbal strove to create a new art form through a dance language that, in the words of founder Sara Levi-Tanai, "drinks from the deep wells of ancient civilizations." The new incarnation, Multi-Disciplinary Ethnic Center--Inbal, is expected to fully clarify its identity and goals by the end of this year. Presumably, its existence will serve as an incentive to artists to plumb their ethnic roots, and provide a stage on which to show the results.

Sara Levi-Tanai was just a girl when the Turks ruled the land of Israel (then Palestine). She lost her mother and sisters during World War I, and was asked by her father to walk the narrow streets of Sefad in the Galilee and beg for food and small change from neighbors. With her powers of survival, rich imagination, intelligence, and optimism, she paved her own way. She was taken to an orphanage and later sent to boarding school in the Shfeya youth village, where she was educated by the best idealistic intellectuals. These were mostly newcomers who got out of Germany in time, recognizing at the first signs the rising power of Hitler's fascist National Socialist Party. Sara received a well-rounded classical education.

Sara, an artist of Yemenite descent, founded Inbal soon after Israel's War of Independence in 1948. She started the company when she was about forty years old. Inbal was the result of Sara's deep yearning to express an array of conflicting inner sentiments. She was educated in and lived in a Western-oriented society and turned to her ethnic heritage relatively late in life. She was drawn to this heritage first out of a romantic notion of the Eastern culture as seen from a European romantic standpoint. Later, when Sara learned more about her roots, she absorbed an appreciation of the writers, poets, and philosophers of the Eastern Diaspora.

Sara directed secular celebrations in the communal settlements called kibbutzim, and made a career as a kindergarten teacher. As she was never educated in dance and knew little of it, her first exposure occurred when she saw a performance by Gertrude Kraus, one of the few professional dancer-choreographers in Israel prior to independence. Sara's naive approach to dance-theater was unspoiled, for she had the right intuitive urge to form a way of expression incorporating movement, singing, reciting of biblical texts, and original music. This erupted out of her to form a unique manifestation, fresh and colorful at that barren time in our country. Unaffected by fleeting modes, she created her own unique voice unmarred by previous "knowledge."

Jerome Robbins, visiting Israel in 1951 as a young and curious choreographer, encountered Inbal in rehearsals. He was impressed, but realized the company could benefit from serious, methodical schooling. He asked his friend, Anna Sokolow, to work with Inbal. That, and his recommendation to the America-lsrael Fund to support Inbal, made the difference. It enabled the company to adopt professional aspirations, and pay the dancers--a rarity then.

Within a span of a few years, Inbal enjoyed it's "golden age," beginning in the mid-fifties with European tours that lasted months. The highlight was a grand tour under the patronage of Sol Hurok, who in 1957 introduced Inbal to audiences in New York and other major cities. …

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